Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Something of interest may be to create a list of "repro qualifiers"...traits that ensure some standard of what we look for in our little corner of the world. What makes a Minstrel Banjo "fit in"...? Is it some combination of materials, crafmanship, dimensions, and ..sound quality? Might be fun to agree on certain important qualities with a point given for each one, and some agreement that "8 out of 10" or whatever makes this an acceptable instrument for public representation of early banjo playing. Not that there will be "Minstrel police" out there, but it might create some cohesive set of values for our craft. At least talking about it may bring some surprising issues to light.    

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It's important to speficy the era.  Let's talk 1850s/1860s.


Let's talk about some of the things that give a Minstrel era banjo it's unique sound.


1.  A thin hoop  ~  1/4"

2.  Fretless (probably)

3.  Gut/Nylgut Strings

4.  A skin head Tacks or Brackets are OK


What do you think, do we specify an open back?  There weren't may resonators yet.

Friction Pegs...hand made, or store stock

Hoop....Bent? Would you include mult-ply rims?

Certainly a bent hoop.  The mult-ply issue can be interesting.  I think that if the rim is thin, the sound will be right.  The use of multi-plys would be OK if no one was looking too closely.  If however, you are making a point of playing on a period instrument, then multi-plys would be wrong.  Saying it was a period sounding instrument would be honest in my book.
What is it we are trying to capture with an instrument...a sound, an appearance, or an asthetic?
I would also suggest a D/G or E/A tuning.  I've seen some  banjos that meet these requirements, but were strung up to G/C tuning.

That is something every player has to answer for themself.  I think we have to agree to capture the sound.  But having a digital banjo seems to violate the spirit of the thing.  Therefore, not only sound, but appearance and asthetic have to come into play to some extent.  Every player has their own reasons for playing.  If not for the public, it probably doesn't matter. 


 If you are representing that you are playing a period instrument, then appearance of the instrument is more important.  If reenacting, then clothing/persona can come into play.  I shouldn't play the banjo wearing preaching tabs. 


Stroke or guitar style playing should come into this as well.  Three fingered playing is definitely out, unless you have three fingers and are playing guitar style.

Tim Twiss said:

What is it we are trying to capture with an instrument...a sound, an appearance, or an asthetic?

Hmm..basic requirements for an Early Banjo...or is it a Minstrel Banjo..? ('nuther discussion)

Fretless, 5 strings, hoop construction, friction pegs, vellum head, low tuning.

Well, if we can go by "oral tradition" Converse seems to think that he saw George Buckley playing "a la guitar" on a fretted banjo, while he played banjo style on "a de House wid Dinah" in 1852.


As to plywood hoops, are there original examples extant? Are there written accounts of them existing?  Sure, the "public" won't know, but the banjoist playing it will.  As to their longevity, Dr. Bob had a whole table covered with original examples of banjos (some over 150 years old, that's longer than I plan on living) that were fully playable and in very good condition with single "ply."  I think that they are unnecessary.


Dan'l will be the loophole expert, (we should wait for his "RE:" post), but I think as a rule what they had (at this point what we are aware of, that could change with more research) is what what we should use appropriate to the era we portray.


I have found no perceivable difference in sound between gut and straight nylon.  Nylgut, on the other hand, does sound different to me.  A bit clacky.  When I was using nylon and folks would ask "what kind of strings are those?"  I would have to qualify that I was using nylon.  That is not to say that I won't go back, but I really feel good about having gut on my "tub" for the moment.


BTW, one trick I found to be helpful to make nylon more user friendly is to scuff them with 2000 grit sandpaper.


Thimbles-  buy them from me ; )


Repertoire- I play by note but it took some self discipline to get there.  "Ear players," whatever, at the end of the day the musician knows what they are doing and feels however they do about it.


Well fitted violin pegs work flawlessly and need no improvement.


Calfskin heads are not so troublesome as Remo and bluegrassers would have you believe.  If you want gasoline byproducts (read hazardous waste) for a banjo head, that is your thing, I can spot a plastic head from across the room. "Fiberskyn" don't look anything like the real deal.


Now, I fancy myself a "living historian" (whatever that means) and I am fully aware of the shortcuts I take.  I feel that when presenting history, we become the educators and take on a big responsibility.  If we know better, we can do better.  Knowingly presenting a bad example is a disservice to the community.


To qualify that, there is a level of expectation that the public wants- they want "old timey like" music.  If one wants to make any amount of money, one needs to make compromises and give folks what they expect.  Yet once again, the performer knows what they are doing and at the end of the day they have to sleep with themselves.


I say, "why reinvent the wheel?"  There are enough options in reproductions of originals that fantasy banjos are not needed.


I suppose that the question should also be asked (and I think Dan'l can be credited for it) "what style of banjo would your impression be playing?"  I play a New York "school" banjo, but I am a musician.  Would a "pro" be playing a factory "tub" like a Boucher?  At the same time would a amateur be playing a "pro" banjo?" 


I know several people who play very fine and expensive "pro" level guitars and never leave their house.  Clearly someone in the 1860s could have bought a very nice banjo to play around with.  Just as a working banjoist might play a flour sieve with a pine neck.


Aesthetically shocking seems to be what the typical "historical" banjoists shoots for.  Lets face it, most of the extant examples of banjos known to the 60s+ really don't look that different from a modern open-back banjo.  That is not very exciting to the public who thinks that people, and life, were 100% different 150 years ago.


Would it be an entirely different question to ask "What is necessary to reproduce 19th Century Banjo music?". Should a listener have to have their eyes open to complete the experience?
Nope.  Skill outweighs hardware any day.  Though, there is yet a huge amount of untapped resources (newspaper articles and periodicals, books, etc.) as yet to be discovered.  First person accounts of performances lend some key to help the presentation. 

Tim Twiss said:
Would it be an entirely different question to ask "What is necessary to reproduce 19th Century Banjo music?". Should a listener have to have their eyes open to complete the experience?
So...I have to leave my Ashborn at home, 'cause it has machine tuners?
oops...  Of course not.  Part of the exercise here is to get past our own conceptions of what a period banjo was/is.  You bring up an excellent point.  I think we need to look at what was commonly in place during the time frame.

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